Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg is expected to take the stand Thursday to answer a lawsuit from a former prosecutor who claims she was fired shortly after Aronberg was elected because she had cancer.
Angela Miller, who was once the Palm Beach State Attorney’s office White Collar Crimes Unit chief, found out in December 2012 that Aronberg would not be keeping her on after Aronberg officially took office in January 2013. At the time, Miller was undergoing chemotherapy following a surgery for breast cancer.
Miller sued, claiming she was fired because Aronberg and others deemed her a liability due to her illness. Aronberg and other officials say Miller was merely not retained with the new administration – a prospect every Assistant State Attorney faces whenever a new top prosecutor takes office.
Testimony in the trial began last week and has already featured appearances by some of Miller’s former colleagues at the State Attorney’s Office, including former State Attorney Michael McAuliffe and two of his former chief assistants, Paul Zacks and Jill Richstone.
Miller took the stand Tuesday and remained there until Wednesday afternoon, breaking down in tears several times, including when describing how then interim State Attorney Peter Antonacci told her in December 2012 that she wouldn’t be retained under the new administration.
“I was fired because I have cancer,” Miller said later. “I was damaged goods. Who wants someone who is bald and has no eyelashes?”
At least one of Aronberg’s top assistants has testified that he didn’t know of Miller’s cancer diagnosis until after the decision had been made to let her go.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes, who was part of Aronberg’s transitional team before Aronberg officially took office in January, said he agreed with the decision not to keep Miller on staff after he learned in a November 2012 meeting that there was a claim that she had improperly used an FBI database to conduct a search for personal reasons. Fernandes described the incident as a serious violation that could have caused the entire office to lose access to the database.
Miller’s attorney, Cathleen Scott, questioned Fernandes about a note he made during what he said was a subsequent meeting. The note indicated that Miller had cancer, and the team did not want to keep her, but Fernandes told jurors the cancer notation had nothing to do with the decision not to retain her.
After Miller left the office, Aronberg dropped charges against the defendant in one of Miller’s last high-profile cases. Suncoast High School band director Ernest Brown once faced charges that he ran up debts on band accounts for school trips to Europe and used band money to take relatives on a trip.
A February 2013 memo from the state attorney’s office following the dropped charges was critical of prosecutors for pushing forward with a case they allegedly couldn’t prove and charging Brown with crimes for which the statute of limitations had passed.
A month later, prosecutors dropped fraud charges against Palm Beach jewelry store owner Vernon Lee Havens. This time, they alleged outright that Miller had committed prosecutorial misconduct.
On the witness stand, Miller said she believed that Brown’s case was dismissed in part because Brown’s attorney, Michael Salnick, and former state attorney and Aronberg transitional team member Barry Krisher were friends.
Havens’ case, she said, was a further attempt to besmirch her character, knowing she was planning to sue.
“I do believe that it was a way to take a shot at me in the paper and say: ‘look at her, look at how stupid she is,'” Miller said.
Later, another Chief Assistant State Attorney, Alan Johnson, testified that he, Krisher and others in the office met periodically for lunch gatherings that would inevitably turn into gripe sessions about the state of the office under McAuliffe, who had promoted Miller during his three years in office.
It was there, Johnson said, that another attorney began to complain about Zacks and Miller. Johnson said Aronberg later began attending those lunch sessions, and added that he told Aronberg of complaints bout Miller before he took office.
After McAuliffe left office early in 2012 and Antonacci was appointed as a temporary replacement, Miller said he constantly pestered her, calling and emailing her about cases while she was trying to recover from surgery and while undergoing chemotherapy.
“I told him that the people that I had left in place were more than capable of answering whatever questions he had, but he kept saying it was my unit, it was my unit,” Miller said. “He never gave me a break.”